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FactCheck: Will children aged 4 and under be taught about masturbation if the sex education bill becomes law?

The claim was made by a Renua local election candidate.

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A LOCAL ELECTION candidate running for Renua has claimed that children aged 0-4 could potentially be taught about masturbation if the sex education bill currently making its way through the Oireachtas becomes law. 

The claim was repeated on radio on the Niall Boylan Show and was picked up by Gript Media, which uses a Facebook page and Twitter account to promote a combination of news and video from a generally right-wing, conservative perspective. 

But is it true? Could the sex education bill lead to children aged four and younger being taught about masturbation?

The claim

The claim originated from a tweet by Neil O’Mahony, a Renua local election candidate in Galway City East.

On 9 May, he tweeted a screenshot of a World Health Organisation (WHO) report with the caption: “Some of the ridiculous nonsense being recommended for inclusion in the RSE sex-ed bill What kind of moron thinks a baby between the age of 0 & 4 needs to learn about early childhood masturbation??? Why cant [sic] these crazy liberals just leave children alone and let kids be kids.”

O’Mahony also made the claim on his Facebook page on 9 May, which has nearly 6,000 likes.

His tweet was then retweeted by the Niall Boylan Show on Classic Hits 4FM, which has over 30,000 followers, with the caption: “All I can say is OMG. This liberal nonsense in Sex-Ed will destroy innocent minds and only serve to confuse children. Whoever wrote this report and recommended that 0-4 year olds should understand and learn about masturbation has taken liberalism to whole new sick level.”

It was then promoted by Gript Media on Facebook and Twitter. The post said:

Teaching masturbation to children UNDER 4? Neil O’Mahoney [sic] of Renua says the WHO guidelines referenced by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment for the new sex education bill recommends teaching “early childhood masturbation”.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is a statutory body that advises the Minister for Education and Skills on curriculum and assessment for early childhood, primary and post-primary education. 

The NCCA was mentioned by Gript because on 9 May O’Mahony had used his Facebook and Twitter accounts to say that a paper published by the NCCA, which referenced the WHO study, was a “supporting document” for the new legislation.

O’Mahony then appeared on the Niall Boylan Show on 14 May and said: 

“That supporting document to the NCCA report actually has a section on curriculum for 0-4 year olds and on page 38 it has a heading “Sexuality” and the actual, this is a direct quote from this document: Under “what you should teach to newborn babies up to the age of 4 – “enjoyment and pleasure when touching one’s own body, early childhood masturbation.”

He also stated:

“People don’t put things in writing unless they mean it. This is in writing, in a World Health Organisation report, and this report is referenced in the Irish NCCA as a supporting document to the recommendations they’re making to the government on what the new sexual education bill should be.”

O’Mahony appeared to contradict himself. On the Boylan show, he said that the research paper was a supporting document to the NCCA report. On 16 May, in a Facebook post, he said: “The WHO report… [is] referenced in an NCCA report that is one of the supporting documents for the new RSE Sex education bill.”

The evidence

Sex and relationship education is required to be taught in Irish schools at primary, post-primary and senior cycle.

The Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill was published in April 2018 and was sponsored by Solidarity-People Before Profit TDs Ruth Coppinger, Paul Murphy and Mick Barry. It is currently making its way through the Oireachtas.

If passed the bill would amend the Education Act 1998 to ensure that the rights of students to receive factual and objective information on relationships and sexuality regardless of the school’s ethos are vindicated. It contains provisions for education on consent, different types of sexuality and gender, the termination of pregnancy and different contraception methods.

It was not opposed by the government at the first and second reading and was praised by then-Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton in April 2018.

The research paper referenced by O’Mahony and described as a supporting document to this legislation can be found on the NCCA website and is titled “Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in Primary and Post-Primary Irish Schools.” The paper is by Dublin City University staff Dr Seline Keating, Prof Mark Morgan and Dr Bernie Collins and is dated November 2018.

There is no link between the content of the sex education bill and this NCCA  paper cited by O’Mahony.

The paper was the initial step of an ongoing review of the content and teaching of the sex education in Irish schools that was announced by Bruton in April 2018 following publication of the sex education bill. But it is not an official NCCA document and was published nearly seven months after the last Dáil debate on the sex education bill in April 2018. Hence it did not inform the current content of the bill.

A draft of this review is set to be published in June and will then be open for consultation before any formal recommendations are made by the NCCA. As of now, however, the contents of this review are not publicly available.

The WHO report cited in the research paper is a document published in 2010 called “Standards for Sexuality Education in Europe: A framework for policy makers, educational and health authorities and specialists.” The document offers guidelines for policymakers and advocates for national sexual education curriculums and programmes.

The WHO report is referenced as an illustration of a framework for sexuality education from birth to 18 years that has a primary focus on “sexuality as a positive human potential and a source of satisfaction and pleasure.”  

In the document and under the heading “Sexuality”, the WHO does state that between the ages of 0-4, children can be given information about “enjoyment and pleasure when touching one’s body, early childhood masturbation”. This is listed alongside other topics they can be given information about, including “tenderness and physical closeness” and “discovery of own body and genitals.”

The exact wording of the document is “give information about” as opposed to “teach”. The choice of “information” is deliberate and the report defines what it means by this on page 33: “Information is understood to provide facts from the field of sexuality education in a balanced, comprehensive, age-appropriate way.”

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The WHO document also explicitly justifies the reason for providing information and guidance on sexuality by stating that even from a young age children are learning about the norms and values around human sexuality. Various academic studies and books all note and observe that children, from a young age, engage in some form of sexual exploration and display curiosity about their own bodies and the bodies of other people.

While the research paper does reference the WHO document, there is there is no reference to “early childhood masturbation” in the paper itself. The research paper also notes that the approach taken by the WHO has been criticised by some because it “may lead to increased or earlier sexual activity, loss of innocence, damage, or increased risk of sexual abuse.”

Status of the sex education bill

The sex education bill is now at committee stage and was referred to the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills in April 2018. The Oireachtas Education and Skills Committee released a report in January 2019 on relationship and sexuality education. The committee made a series of recommendations, including that a relationship and sexual education curriculum should be taught at “primary level in an age and developmentally appropriate manner.”

However, the report did not focus on early childhood education regarding sexuality and relationships and instead the vast majority of discussion was on how sexuality could be taught at primary and secondary level.

The report did not reference the research paper published by the NCCA nor the WHO report that prompted O’Mahony’s claim.

The bill is also far from guaranteed to pass through the Oireachtas to become legislation. While the government has not opposed it so far, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have expressed concern that enshrining curriculum requirements in legislation could limit changes to curriculum and teaching in the long-term.

O’Mahony did not respond to a request from TheJournal.ie asking him to provide evidence for his claim. 

 Verdict

The sex education bill will not lead to children between the ages of 0-4 being taught masturbation. 

The sex education bill was not informed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment research paper cited by O’Mahony. The NCCA review of the teaching and content of sex education in Irish schools is ongoing and is not connected to the progress of the sex education bill through the Oireachtas. 

The WHO report from which O’Mahony draws the reference to early child masturbation was cited by one NCCA research paper, but has not played any significant role in informing either the content of the sex education bill or debate in the Oireachtas.

As a result, we rate the claim that the sex education bill could lead to children aged 0-4 being taught masturbation: FALSE.

As per our verdict guide, this means: The claim is inaccurate.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.

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